February 3, 2006
Tigers, Mets, Pirates
Twelve straight losing seasons has a way of breeding pessimism towards a team, and the Tigers have become one of baseball's privileged few to be perennially overlooked. From that 1993 club, the last Tiger hanger-on was Travis Fryman, who was traded eight years ago. Ever since 1993, Detroit has played at a .408 clip, the equivalent of a 66-96 record. Dismissing the Tigers is a Grapefruit League tradition almost as routine as split squad games and sporting green caps on St. Patrick's Day.
But is the ridicule justified this year? The AL Central isn't the rest home it used to be, but can the Tigers claw themselves out of their presumed fourth place standing? Might they even vault into--gasp--contention? Here are three reasons it could happen:
Who knows, maybe Ivan Rodriguez can even regain some of his OBP, which sank 93 points. The Tigers? Contending? If the breakouts come and the team stays healthy, it's not crazy at all.
At this point, pretty much every baseball fan knows that the Mets have acquired Carlos Delgado, Billy Wagner, and Paul Lo Duca, and the Seo for Sanchez swap has received good coverage as well. But the Mets have also been busy picking up complementary players to fill out the 2006 squad. Let's examine some of them in a little more detail.
Chad Bradford - Signed to a one year deal, Bradford doesn't carry a lot of risk for the Mets, but he had a forgettable 2005, back injury or not. Bradford has never been one to give up the gopher ball, something that certainly won't change in Shea, but what you see is what you get with Bradford. He'll induce ground balls, but his unhappy marriage of a declining strikeout rate and a rising walk rate mean that Bradford has been skating on thin ice.
Endy Chavez - The man who made the last out ever as a Montreal Expo has never really developed into anything useful. Over 99 outs with the Nationals and Phillies last year, Chavez amassed .1 WARP, the very definition of replacement level. He is the fifth outfielder for the Amazin's, and if he is used as anything other than a fifth outfielder and pinch runner, the Mets won't be going very far.
Julio Franco and Xavier Nady - Nate Silver is running out of PECOTA comps for the ageless one. While Franco's longevity is certainly admirable, and he likely has a great deal of wisdom to impart on the younger players, he's not really an essential piece to a team. In 2005, he ranked 23rd in first base EqA. Franco is also the same type of player that Nady is, in that they are both right-handed hitters that are limited defensively, and will be most effective at first base. Given that Nady is younger, can spot at third and the outfield, he would be the better use of a roster spot. But if the Mets want to have a 40-year old on the roster for two straight seasons, they will have to stick with Franco, because the Pirates signed Roberto Hernandez to be their resident geezer. As for Nady, he is running out of time to impress, but his flexibility still makes him worthy of a roster spot.
Yusaku Iriki - The latest Japanese import, Iriki figures to be similar to a Keiichi Yabu swingman than a Kazuhisha Ishii starter. Iriki's strikeout rate stands out in an otherwise modest untranslated Japanese stat line:
Iriki Japanese stats, 1997-2005 G GS IP ERA H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB 212 73 775.0 3.73 8.3 1.08 3.43 7.8 2.28The Yomiuri Giants' number one pick in 1997, the 33-year old Iriki features five pitches, four standards--fastball, curveball, slider, changeup--and the "shuto," a "two-seam pitch that breaks outside and down to right-handed batters."
Jorge Julio - This is the type of pitcher who could end up being successful for the Mets. Julio maintained a high strikeout rate last year, while lowering his walk rate. Unfortunately, a lower walk rate meant more balls hit into play, which resulted in more hits, and more home runs. While the BABIP may or may not fluctuate, the home runs should certainly decrease in the move to Shea Stadium.
Jose Valentin statistics AB AVG OBP SLG 2000-2002 1480 .261 .331 .493 2003-2005 1100 .219 .305 .441Even after showing improvement with the glove in Chicago, Valentin regressed back to the form of his Milwaukee days, and was a disappointment all across the diamond in 2005. Perhaps with improved health Valentin will bounce back, but his better days are behind him.
The Mets figure to give the Braves a run for their money in the NL East, but overall still appear too top-heavy. Should they get effective contributions from the majority of these players in their designed roles, the Mets could well be on their way to a post-season berth. However, all of the above players have their question marks, and as such, so does the Mets 2006 season.
1969. If you believe Bryan Adams, that was the year he first picked up a "real six-string," unwittingly setting loose great sorrow upon the world. More pertinent to the Pirates, it's also the year that the fruits of their off-season free-agent shopping, Jeromy Burnitz and Joe Randa, first came into the world.
This veteran duo--Randa just turned 36 in December, Burnitz turns 37 a couple of weeks into the 2006 season--would have been real hot stuff back in 1999, when each of them had their career years (Randa was worth 6.5 WARP, his only time above five, and Burnitz posted a 6.8 WARP, one of his three time above six). Even seven years later, both are still contributors, albeit with caveats. Each was nearly a five-win performer in 2005 (4.6 for Burnitz, 4.7 for Randa), and while neither signing is a bargain--the Bucs are spending a cumulative $10.7 million for Burnitz and Randa's services next season--the cost isn't prohibitive. Taking a closer look at both players' performances, over the past four years:
Randa Burnitz EqA AVG/OBP/SLG EqA AVG/OBP/SLG 2002 .256 .282/.341/.426 .246 .215/.311/.365 2003 .265 .291/.348/.452 .266 .239/.299/.487 2004 .254 .287/.343/.408 .284 .283/.356/.559 2005 .273 .276/.335/.452 .258 .258/.322/.435Their performances have very different shapes, but similar results. Randa's performance is based on good batting averages and moderate power, Burnitz is a low-average, low-OBP swing-from-the-heels type. Both have hovered around league average over the past four years, each padding their performance with some time in a hitter's haven--Burnitz's 2004 was spent at Coors Field, while Randa spent the first part of last season while operating out of the Great American Ballpark (.843 OPS there in 2005, against a .787 OPS overall).
The tale the statistics tell is one of profound mediocrity. Neither Randa nor Burnitz seems in line for an out-and-out collapse, despite both men being of an age where players fall off the map very quickly. The newly-released PECOTA projections (if you haven't picked them up by now, you have more willpower than I do) have Randa tagged for a .254 EqA in '06, and Burnitz taking a true shine to the lefty-friendly confines of PNC Park with a .270 EqA. Both figures are short of the positional averages at third and in right field, but things could definitely be worse in each case.
The meme when a young team like the Pirates makes moves for veteran mediocrities like these, and like the earlier acquisition of Sean Casey, is that the vets are needed to teach the young turks how to win. This is the type of idea we've dismissed out-of-hand in the past, but which probably deserves a little more respect than we've given it.
Nonetheless, the idea doesn't hold here, because this crew of veterans that the Pirates have brought in is distinguished by their lack of winning, and their dearth of postseason experience. Between Burnitz, Randa and Casey, none has spent a whole season with a division-winning club. The only one of these guys to see a postseason plate appearance was Randa, who played in the Division Series last October after being a deadline acquisition by the Padres. He did a pretty nice job--four for eleven with a walk and a double…in a three game sweep by the Cardinals.
The 2005 Padres (final record 82-80) were only the second winning team Randa had ever been on. In ten full seasons in the Show, his teams have finished last in their division five times. In his eight full seasons, Casey's Reds finished under .500 six times. After beginning his career with the 103-loss 1993 Mets, Burnitz almost made it to the playoffs in the 1996 season with the 99-win Cleveland Indians…before he was dealt away to the Brewers, at the August trade deadline, for Kevin Seitzer. All told, ten of Burnitz's 12 full seasons have been spent on under-.500 teams.
This isn't meant to minimize these fellows' achievements in the majors. One of the points we frequently raise here is that winning players aren't better people than the guys that came up short. It's just that if these guys are supposed to teach the youngsters to win, it should be pointed out that these veterans might find winning a novel experience, themselves.
After all, when the going gets tough this season, what's the inspirational speech they're supposed to give their young teammates? "When we were losing 100 games back in 2002, we could have given up…"
But then again, that just might be the point. Casey, Randa, and Burnitz probably aren't familiar with the mechanics of splitting up World Series shares, but they certainly have seen their share of losses. We don't know if former champs can teach young players how to win, but you can't dismiss the thought that maybe guys who have seen and survived a number of losing seasons might be able to help youngsters learn how to cope with losing.
Hopefully, their services won't be needed. But it has been 13 straight seasons of losing in Pittsburgh.